Difficult topics and moments

If faculty avoided all potentially sensitive issues, students could easily view their courses as irrelevant and boring. If on the other hand, we want students to be critical thinkers, global citizens and thoughtful participants in democracy, we should help students learn how to develop the necessary skills.

Below, you’ll find strategies for managing difficult moments, or you can download a handout of related suggestions, here: CATL, Facilitating Discussion in Polarized Times, 2020.


With some advance preparation, instructors can influence the manner in which controversial topics are dealt with. They can:

  • At the beginning of the semester, set up expectations for classroom etiquette (such as no interrupting, criticizing ideas rather than attacking people, knowing one another’s names, etc.), so that students trust one another and feel part of the learning community. Review these “ground rules” together periodically, particularly before discussions on sensitive topics.
  • Take the time to build community – including knowing one another’s names and some connections between students in the course.
  • Choose interesting and informative readings or other preparatory materials that introduce a range of perspectives. Aim for more than two perspectives so that the students don’t fall into oversimplified polarities.
  • Structure class discussions to insure that a variety of voices are heard. That might mean starting with smaller groups and assigning or randomly calling on a reporter for each group; doing circular exercises in which everyone speaks; using polling (student response systems).
  • Consider a format like Deliberative Dialogue where a class systematically evaluates the pros and cons of at least 3 positions after agreeing upon ground rules. The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation offers many options for dialogue and deliberation formats.
  • Ask students to do exercises in which they prove they have listened to and can articulate a position other than their own (as well as their own). Help them see that hearing other perspectives helps us understand our own.
  • Model (with your own behavior) patient and respectful listening and interacting, question asking, and the ability to understand a variety of theories and perspectives.
  • Try to be as unbiased as possible in your response to students’ remarks on a specific topic, even when you do not agree. Correct a wrong assumption with evidence so that they become more informed and learn from the interaction—rather than shutting the student down simply because you do not agree with their ideology.
  • Before a discussion, give students time to consider their reasoning and gather their evidence for their views. Help students figure out where their positions come from –whether experiences, observations, reasoning, values, or evidence.
  • Keep the focus on learning and understanding, not winning an argument.
  • Help students tolerate discomfort and expect that the whole class won’t always be able to come to consensus.

Dealing with the spontaneous “hot comment” or offensive remark

No matter how much faculty may have tried to set up a respectful environment, sometimes a student might say something that provokes strong feelings and controversy. It’s very possible that you may feel uncertain about how to respond. You might want to choose the path of least resistance, which is to simply ignore the comment and move on. However, students frequently report that they perceive faculty silence and inaction as meaning the professor (and/or other students) agree with the comment. If the comment attacks a whole group of people, students in that group conclude they will not be protected.

Instead of ignoring the comment, in “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom,” Lee Warren suggests ways faculty can help turn a “hot moment” into a productive learning opportunity:

  • Ask the students what they might learn from a particular disagreement. This technique gives them responsibility for some of the work and keeps the focus on learning.
  • Take the focus off the individual student who made the remark and saying something like, “Other people think this way. Why do they hold such views?” and then, “Why do those who disagree hold their views?” This allows students to disagree and ideally gets students to deepen their understanding of multiple perspectives. (You can also ask what information students would need in order to be more confident of their own views.)
  • Ask the students to step back and reflect (write) about what they are thinking or feeling.
  • If you can’t figure out a way in that moment to deal with the issue, tell students this seems like an important issue that you would like to take up at a later time. That lets students know you’ve noticed and take the issue seriously and also gives you time to plan strategies for the next class meeting, perhaps ones that include providing resources that frame the controversy.

Sometimes it can be helpful to talk with individual students embroiled in controversy, helping them figure out what they’ve learned or need to learn or what support they might need.

See additional resources below. If you’re an Elon faculty member in the middle of a tricky situation and want to talk confidentially, feel free to call CATL to set up a conversation (x5106).

Other Resources

Lee Warren (of Harvard’s Bok Center) offers more strategies in “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.”

Diane J. Goodman’s Responding to Biased or Offensive Comments suggests considering your goals and offers multiple possible choices for how to respond.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, “Engagement Streams Framework [Guide],” 2014.

Nancy Thomas (Tufts University) & Cazembe Kennedy (Clemson University), The Post-Election Classroom, 2020.

University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning has created a number of helpful guides:

Harvard University Graduate School Teaching & Learning Lab, Teaching in Times of Stress or Trauma, 2020.